Murder well written: ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

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The cover tells you what you need to know about ‘His Bloody Project’.  It’s gruesome, visceral and immediately intriguing.  Once you get past the red, smudged splatters and fingerprints, you see there’s a subtitle, the book is really called ‘His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.’  Playful name games aside, this is a heading to fill a classic book lover’s heart with delight.  There are times when I really think that all horror and crime books should be presented as documentary evidence with the author masquerading as the editor.  It worked for ‘Dracula’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’; it worked for Conan Doyle and it worked for Poe.  Burnet’s Booker long-listed novel shows the convention is still going strong.

‘His Bloody Project’ relishes its literary tradition, from the beautifully dated language to the tone of the editor, who tells us at the start of the preface ‘It is not my intention to unduly detain the reader, but a few prefatory remarks may provide a little context to the material collected here.  Those readers who prefer to proceed directly to the documents themselves are of course free to do so.‘  The self-conscious editor is a joy whenever he appears, but most of the book is taken up with other voices, giving a wonderfully textured view of crime, law and everyday life in the nineteenth-century Highlands.

The main ‘document’ in the novel is the memoir of Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter who opens his writings by telling his audience ‘I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed.‘  For all that this book has been labeled as a crime story, there is never any question about who-dunnit or  how-dunnit; the memoir and the accompanying eye-witness testimony all agree.  Fortunately, none of this affects the tension and drama of the story.  Roderick Macrae’s memoir is a wonderful account of a specific region at a specific historical moment.  There is a gothic isolation and barbarity in his narrative, thrown into sharp relief when more cosmopolitan voices show their own mid-Victorian views on the ‘primitive’ ‘squalor’ of this traditional way of life.  Culduie, home to the Macraes for generations, is a feudal agricultural community, untouched by the modernising industrialism booming across Britain at the time.  Questions of Roderick’s guilt are tied up in an understanding of entrenched power structures; when the journalists discuss the trial ‘Only John Murdoch departed from the notion that the verdict was a foregone conclusion.  His southern colleagues, he explained, overlooked the empathy the jurymen might feel towards an ill-used crofter.  The resentment caused by centuries’ ill treatment of the Highlander was keenly felt, and in Roderick Macrae, they might see an individual who had revolted against the vindictiveness of the powers-that-be.’

There are (many) times when genre labels are unhelpful; if ‘His Bloody Project’ is a traditional crime novel in its framing and structure, it is an ambitious literary novel in its exploration of crime and punishment.  Like Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ this is not a book that seeks clear resolution, but a novel that delves into questions of truth, madness and justice.  The irony of the collection of ‘documents’ is that it leaves so many gaps; the stories told are so similar that any small disparity stands out with frightening significance.  Burnet is far more interested in building a forgotten world and filling it with uncomfortably familiar figures than with simple questions of right or wrong, good or evil.  His novel is ambitious, funny and shocking, everything the cover promised.

Other great unconventional crime novels

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14 Responses to Murder well written: ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

  1. Desiree B. Silvage says:

    Reblogged this on LITERARY TRUCE.

  2. Great review Shoshi! This is the one title which appealed to me from the Booker list…. 🙂

  3. This sounds excellent – I really enjoyed Alias Grace so I’ll definitely seek this out.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    You have me panting with excitement to read this one. it was the first of the long listed titles to grab my attention. But first I have two other books to finish…..

    • I know the feeling! This moved up the list when I suddenly had a craving for crime fiction (it happens).
      I’m hoping I haven’t over-sold it, I don’t think so though – I did really enjoy it!

  5. amreade says:

    I must check this one out. Sounds intriguing.

  6. Elle says:

    Excellent! So it’s not stodgy pastiche, then?

    • Absolutely not! I suppose people who expect a modern crime thriller may be taken aback by the sensitive and atmospheric creation of the Victorian setting, but I’d never call good historical fiction stodgy! As for calling it pastiche, I thought it fitted well and knowingly into a wonderful literary tradition.

      • Elle says:

        That’s great to hear! It seemed like it would either be astonishingly good, or it would fit into the bad-historical-fiction category (which is usually best described as “stodgy pastiche”) – but no reviewer has yet disliked it, that I know of!

  7. camelbroken says:

    I loved this book too, but I disagree that the who and how-dunit are clear cut. I very much thought all was not as it seemed! Might just be my suspicious nature! I definitely agree Burnet is channelling Stevenson though, and that this is wonderful! My review is here if you fancy a look https://murderundergroundbrokethecamel.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/his-bloody-project/

    • Thank you so much for the link to your wonderful review – I think you really captured what made this book the most popular of the booker shortlist (according to an interview with Waterstones I heard on the BBC).
      I think that the book is challenging, literary and a lot of fun (just like Stevenson!) and really forces the reader to pick up on discrepancies in the storytelling. On the other hand, I don’t think its’ about finding answers (even while inviting questions) and some Cluedo basics are clearly set out such as where the murder occurred and what weapon was used.
      If you like crime stories that leave you with more questions than answers, I really recommend ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ which I reviewed at https://shoshibookblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/nobel-prize-for-literature-revisited-or-why-i-love-bob-dylan/comment-page-1/#comment-2173.

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